A stranger's notebook

Nomi Stone traveled solo to Tunisia to study the Djerba Jewish community.

Nomi Stone 248 (photo credit: Courtesy of Nomi Stone)
Nomi Stone 248
(photo credit: Courtesy of Nomi Stone)
No one told Nomi Stone that girls are not supposed to go by themselves to Djerba. Stone, an American poet and the daughter of a Reform rabbi, wasn't the first young woman to turn up alone on the island, a pentagon of land perched just off Tunisia's eastern coast. That designation belonged to the legendary Ghriba, a mythical figure who appeared more than two millennia ago, floating from either the sea or the sky. Every member of Djerba's small Jewish community can recount the tragic tale of what happened next to the strange girl whose name means "the foreigner" in Arabic. She was banished to a solitary hut by their fearful forebears, who left the girl to die in a fire because they were too afraid to go near her; when her body was found unblemished in the ashy ruins of the shack, the Djerbans adopted her as their patron saint, an almost Mary-like figure to whom they pray for fertility and good fortune at the ancient synagogue named in her honor. Stone knew the tale of the Ghriba when she left for Tunisia in 2003, armed with a Fulbright scholarship to study the insular community of the Djerban Jews, kohanim who trace their presence on the island back to the fifth century BCE. The Ghriba's story was intricately woven into their own - in one version of the legend, the mysterious girl showed the exiled Jews where to lay a cornerstone they had carried with them from the First Temple - and Stone believed the natural suspicion of any insular community toward outsiders might have abated with the arrival not just of satellite television and the Internet, but of a horde of international media in the wake of a 2002 al-Qaida bombing outside the Ghriba synagogue that killed a group of German tourists. INSTEAD, STONE says she encountered a wall of mistrust. As an unmarried woman in her early 20s, she was told that she couldn't possibly board with a family, for fear of scandalizing their bachelor sons, and was told to rent an apartment from a Muslim family; some, either out of curiosity or genuine concern, asked how her father and her brother could have let her travel so far by herself. To deflect their questions, Stone invented a story about a long-distance fiancé - a boyfriend would have seemed insufficiently committed - who was too preoccupied with his own studies or work to join her. Then, after Stone began tutoring teenagers in English, she found herself the target of questions about whether she really "kept the religion" at all, if her father played guitar during Shabbat services. "The fact of an American Jewish woman traveling by herself, not married, seemed strange to them," Stone told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview. Stone, a slight, almond-eyed brunette who could still pass for a teenager despite her serious, professorial demeanor - she is now a doctoral student in anthropology at the City University of New York and will be transferring to Columbia University - says she was finally able to connect with young, newly married women her own age, some of whom had lived in France, enabling her to supplement her hesitant Arabic with her fluent French. "I told people I was there to teach English or to learn Arabic, because it's easier for people to get their heads around than saying, 'I'm here to write poems,'" Stone said. But there was still a divide between these young women, who already had children of their own, and Stone, who was bound for a master's degree at Oxford and a life of her own making, free of any rigid expectations dictated by religion or social customs. Poetry, the original impetus for the trip, became more than a way to document a community Stone had believed was in danger of disappearing, through emigration as much as through the encroachment of modernity; it became a way to channel her own loneliness, the same loneliness one imagines the martyred Ghriba might have felt herself: "Girls are not supposed to come to islands / by themselves; did no one tell you? You found / the highest hill, away from their whistles, / their eyes. Up here only windy grass, the blow of sea that brought you." When the poems were published last fall in the US in a collection titled Stranger's Notebook, Stone thanked the residents of Djerba's two main Jewish neighborhoods, the Hara Kebira and the Hara Sgheira, "for letting me in and not letting me in." "There was strangeness on both sides," Stone acknowledged, ruefully. IF THE Ghirba has a season, it is now - the stretch between Pessah and Lag Ba'omer, when Djerbans make their own reverse pilgrimage from Israel or, less and less commonly, from France, to the island where their ancestors fled during the Babylonian exile, or more recently after the expulsion from Spain. Over the centuries, the Djerban community developed a heavily messianic and mystical strain of Judaism that weaves together the strands of the island's cultural history. The houses are decorated with hands and fish, symbols of good luck that can be traced back to the seafaring Carthaginians who once lived on the island - which in turn may or may not be the storied land of the lotus-eaters described in Homer's Odyssey. Lag Ba'omer is celebrated in memory of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, and also in honor of the Ghriba, to whom the pilgrimage home is dedicated. In Djerba, the holiday features bonfires and processions and parties in praise of the Zohar and the rabbi, and women will take eggs inscribed with their wishes, or wishes for their friends - for husbands, for children, for health, for wealth - to the cave of the Ghriba inside the synagogue, leaving them to "cook" surrounded by candles that mimic the holiday bonfires. After two days, the women are meant to eat the eggs to ingest their dreams. The synagogue bombing in April 2002, just after Pessah, may have been calculated to shadow the annual pilgrimage - as much for religious reasons as to dampen enthusiasm for making the trip among tourists, and Israeli Djerbans, who live in a kind of double exile. Those who made aliya nonetheless constructed a replica of the Ghriba synagogue in the Negev town of Ofakim in the 1950s - a kind of homecoming, given its mythical origins with the stone from the First Temple, but also an expression of homesickness for Djerba itself. In her book, Stone quotes from a Djerban folk song she heard sung at a wedding in Israel: "My soul is here... with exile. / Jerusalem, come to me / in the songs and in the homes." "There is a very real confusion about where is home - is it Israel, which they spent centuries yearning for, or is it the island, which they have now left?" Stone said. There are about 1,200 Jews still living in Djerba, out of a population of more than 100,000, Stone said. At its peak, she estimated Djerba's Jewish community numbered only about 6,000. Djerbans, who sent a delegate to the 12th Zionist Congress in 1921, began leaving for Israel in 1948 out of Zionist and messianic conviction; subsequent waves followed for more pragmatic reasons - in 1956, when Tunisia won its independence from France, and in 1967, after anti-Semitic rioting during the Six Day War. "The rise of Arab nationalism made things uncomfortable for them, and they started to get the Zionist message," Stone said. Today, especially in the wake of the second intifada, there is ambivalence, Stone said, with more successful Djerbans staying because they have heard it is difficult to start over in Israel, while others leave in the dead of night, without telling their neighbors, out of embarrassment that they are abandoning their community. When she went to Israel to interview Djerbans who had made aliya, she said, they were astonished to hear her speaking Arabic in the island dialect, and instead of greeting her with the suspicion of their counterparts across the Mediterranean, they welcomed her with questions, and seemed eager to talk about the homeland they missed. "[Djerban] Jews I met in Israel talked about being ashamed, of leaving at six in the morning so their neighbors wouldn't know, and it put me in an ambivalent position - suddenly I was the bearer of stories," she explained. "There is a kind of reverse nostalgia and a real longing for home, but it is generational. There is a distinction between what people who are in their 60s and 70s, who still speak Arabic at home, feel, and what their children or grandchildren do." STONE LIKES rituals, and shrines, and myths, and Djerba's Jews are rich in all three, having preserved ancient practices through the centuries that were forgotten elsewhere as Judaism was codified, refined, modernized. Practices like using a giant key to stir sugared porridge that symbolizes the lost Temple, or like the addition of black shiva stripes to men's trousers to remember the tragedy. As an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, Stone spent time in Morocco studying shrines in Fez, and in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, she said she felt that she wanted to capture what she thought of as "the last Arab Jews" - people who, as she wrote in one poem, when blessing kosher meat, "could add, without contradiction or interruption of his blessing, 'Allahu Akbar' to make the meat equally fit for Muslim consumption." "I had this idea that there was this fragment that needed to be written about right now, but I saw all these young families and they have this feeling of thriving, and flourishing," she said. Older Djerbans Stone met in Israel were nostalgic for the peaceful coexistence they remembered with their Muslim neighbors in Tunisia, relative to the tension they felt living in Ofakim or in Ashkelon. Their relatives in Djerba - who watch Israeli television on satellite, who now run cellphone stores and pizzerias instead of practicing their traditional silverworking craft - told her that era was gone. But they still had their rituals, and their particular style of strict religious observance - in other words, the comfort of being among a small, relatively isolated community of Jews, to make up for the price of living in a remnant community, a social island on a real island in the Mediterranean. It was "how every island knew itself from its sea," Stone wrote in one poem, "The Path of the Boy-God's Arrow." "For centuries we / have been eating food separate from the / others, have been speaking so the others cannot / completely understand; only we can understand / each other."